Hans Keller, Robbins Landon and the K.543 finale: the “doodle-doodle” letters

Score and parts of Mozart Symphony no. 39 in E Flat, K.543 from the CUMS library. MRS.25.271

Score and parts of Mozart Symphony no. 39 in E Flat, K.543 from the CUMS library. MRS.25.271

Currently, I am having a most engaging time creating a handlist of the letters in the Hans Keller archive and have just reached the bulging file of exchanges between Keller and H. C. Robbins Landon – what a treat! On the one hand the ebullient, forthright Robbins Landon, best known for his ground-breaking research on Haydn and who achieved celebrity status in debunking the myth surrounding Mozart’s death, on the other the insightful, articulate Keller, champion of the music of Schoenberg and key figure at the BBC in the 1960s and 70s, whose musical knowledge and understanding far outstripped that of most of his contemporaries.

It has been a privilege to follow the white-hot exchange of ideas between them. Yes, there is the business element of course – how Keller’s proof-reading of Landon’s text of his massive 1955 book The Symphonies of Joseph Haydn was progressing for example – but they cannot help themselves engaging in debate at a much deeper level.

As an example, I have chosen four letters written between January and March 1955 which begins with Robbins Landon sharing his thoughts on the musical integration of the finales of several of Mozart’s symphonies and leads to Keller’s exposition of his ideas on musical unity.

Here’s how it goes:

Letter from Robbins Landon dated 25th January 1955:

“Take yours [score] of K.543/IV: start with the theme, now read to tutti. Now the tutti: what one hears, no matter what any brilliant conductor does, is the doodle-doodle of the fiddles, and suddenly the horns which at least aurally is the first cohesive texture to stand out in the midst of the doodle-doodle. I know the doodle is based on the 2nd violin part at the beginning, which…goes something like K543 doodleNow I suppose you can say that this first tutti [bar 16 ff] is a derivative of the 2nd violin part, but I think it’s more a paper derivative than a conscious musical tie up on M’s part.”

Keller disagrees completely in a virtuoso piece of writing in his reply of 24th February 1955 – impossible to quote in full here, so inadequate edited highlights must suffice:

Letter from Hans Keller to Robbins Landon dated 24 Feb 1955. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Keller/Cosman Trust.

Letter from Hans Keller to Robbins Landon dated 24 Feb 1955. Reproduced with the kind permission of Cambridge University Library and the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

“…the problem for Mozart was to offer sufficient relief before the tense monothematic concentration reveals itself in the second subject…No, I don’t say that the tutti is derived from the 2nd violin part, for not every old doodle-doodle derives from any old doodle-doodle…The integration must be heard, and you will hear it via your Urlinie-consciousness [i.e. awareness of the basic line]; the theme’s antecedent and the doodle-doodle fulfil one of those subtle Mozartian complementary relationships which are based on an underlying, antecedent-consequent construction…Thus Mozart combines momentary relief with forthcoming tension…the surest proof of formal mastery.”

Landon is quick to respond, recognising the strength of Keller’s reasoning (and, incidentally, re-stating Keller’s thoughts as though through re-articulation to embed the concept firmly in his mind), in a letter dated 2 February 1955:

“I think the strongest argument for the finale’s construction is your second reason, i.e. that the second subject is really the first, and to prepare for this monothematicism Mozart brings in this long doodle-doodle tutti, which is I think primarily supposed to relax the listener, i.e. to remove any traces of thematicism from his mind, so that the second subject (i.e. the first, again) will strike him with full force as something brilliant…I hope you are going to do a piece on Mozart’s unconscious thematic consequents in your bit for the Mozart handbook [published in 1956 as the Mozart companion]: this seems to me to be a brilliant and as far as I can see entirely original theory of yours.”

Finally, Keller comes back to sum up their exchange in his reply of 6 March 1955:

The "doodle-doodle" passage under discussion from the Finale of Mozart 39. Score from the CUMS library.

The “doodle-doodle” passage under discussion from the Finale of Mozart 39. Score from the CUMS library.

“I think you attach to [sic] much importance to the difference between unconscious and conscious processes in composition. Of course, the distinction is most important psychologically, but hardly musically: what is cs in one composer (e.g. Beethoven) is ucs in another (e.g. Mozart), and identical processes may be unconscious and conscious in the same composer upon different occasions (Britten)….We’ve heard enough about the “contrasting second subject” and so forth: …it is the unity that remains to be analysed. This is the secret of the sonata – i.e. of extended polythematic integration”.

It is this concept which Keller was to demonstrate time and time again in his analytical writings, including his masterly chapter on the chamber music in the Mozart companion and through the scores of his Functional Analyses.

Now go and listen, and you’ll see what they mean…it certainly made me go back with new ears to a work I thought had been hard-wired into my consciousness.

SW

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